I can hardly believe, or handle, the fact that my babies will soon be turning 2. On Valentines Day.
I’ve been thinking about their birth lately. It was all so complicated, dramatic. There were airplanes and ambulances, teams of specialists, hospital stays spanning weeks and weeks, and parrots. Yes, parrots. I’ll get to those later
I’m afraid I’ll forget something important if I don’t write it all down, yet I haven’t until now because I get so emotional. But I think I’m ready now; I want to try.
It all started with my OBGYN pacing nervously in the hallway outside my hospital room. I’d seen him most every week of my pregnancy, and he was always unfailingly kind, reassuringly serene. Never like this, so burdened. So very worried. I was only 27 weeks.
When I first moved to this island, about a month pregnant, people told me 2 things: 1, it is very difficult to get a doctor here because there are not enough, and 2, the doctors that are here aren’t very good. The former is true, the latter could not be further from truth. I’d like to say right up front that while I have lived in big cities and seen fancy physicians in very high ranking hospitals, I have never in my life met such smart, compassionate, dedicated professionals as the doctors on this island. My OBGYN, the one pacing outside my hospital room, is the best doctor I’ve ever had.
He finally came inside. “I have to send you away.” he said. Another island, with bigger hospitals, NICUs. He paused, pressing his fingers together like a fan. “We can handle you here… but not the babies.”
The next thing I remember is hearing the rain above me, resonating like a tuning fork on the roof of the medevac airplane. I am strapped to a gurney. A crew of medics sits around me, all men, along with my husband and the pilot. No females but for me, and the twin girls in my womb. The men are cheerful. They try to convey calm, routine. I am panicky, and desperate to pee. They offer me a bedpan if I “really, really need it.” Their eyes plead with me not to need it. This makes me smile for the first time in hours.
They wisely separate my husband and I before we can whip each other into a frenzy; seat him next to the pilot. The man next to me asks questions, trying to distract me from my worry. His voice is so pleasant and upbeat, like we are sitting in a hot tub, not rattling around in a tiny plane, with only the turquoise Pacific below. I stop him. “We’re almost there, right? We’ll make it, won’t we?” He opens his mouth to answer, but is cut off by my husband’s joyful declaration, “Hey look, there’s Maui!”
We land, and they carry me to another ambulance, then another hospital room. In my new hospital bed they tell me I have severe preeclampsia, that I won’t be going anywhere, least of all back to my island, my home. They say the only cure is to deliver the babies, but they are still too young. They start to manage my condition with medication; tell me to sit tight, hold on as long as possible. The longer I can hold out, the better it will be for my girls. The weeks go by and I am cranky, tired. They draw my blood most every day; wake me at 5am to weigh me. I have so much time on my hands to worry about what the preeclampsia is doing to my babies. I can’t bear to think about it. Instead I gather petty grievances in my mind. How could they have forgotten to bring my snack? Everyone knows I have crackers at 3. I’ll starve! How could they have only given me one towel for the shower instead of 2? One towel can’t fit around my huge pregnant belly!
Then one day they tell me it’s time. 33 weeks. It’s no longer safe to wait. The delivery room is a blur. The pressure on my chest, the anesthesiologist holding a pink plastic container beside my face to catch the vomit. Him wiping my mouth. Seeing the girls for only a second before they are whisked away, my husband hot in pursuit. I beg to be taken to the NICU to see my babies. They tell me no; calmly list the reasons for their refusal: my blood pressure is too high, the epidural hasn’t worn off yet, I wouldn’t be able to get into a wheelchair, it’s against hospital policy. I will have to wait until tomorrow, they say. I raise holy hell until they gave in. Somehow I get there, lean over Maddie’s isolette from my wheelchair. She has a breathing mask on. There is a nurse bending down to talk to me. She is in her forties, thin, blond hair, pretty smile. She is speaking softly, smiling, encouraging. She keeps talking but I black out, can’t stop blacking out. There is this searing, burning, horrible pain in my abdomen. I don’t think I said a word back to her, and that’s a shame. She was being so kind. I stare at Maddie’s mask and think “don’t faint, don’t faint, don’t faint.”
A day later I meet with one of the girls’ doctors. She has heard about my holy hell raising and tells me a story about another patient, a homeless woman who had given birth to a preemie. They put her in a recovery room after her
C-section. She had no friends or family with her. After they left her alone she somehow managed to drag herself to the hallway, pull up into a wheelchair, and push it all the way to the NICU. I can’t even imagine it. It’s a long, long way to the NICU. To fight through all that pain, that unbelievable pain, alone. That’s bravery. That’s love. I could never be so brave. A woman like that should give us all pause. A woman like that deserves a home.
I think about the NICU all the time, but always feel hesitant to talk about it- like it’s AA or fight club or something, and I should keep my damn mouth shut. Pretend I don’t see those babies in my mind, those 15 oz babies, heads the size of a heel. Pretend I don’t feel guilt over them, sometimes, watching my girls play, pretend I don’t sometimes haunt micropreemie blogs, wondering what became of them. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a crappy philosopher, so normally I don’t even try- but you can’t look at a 15 oz baby and not ask yourself questions about life. How do we fit a life, a mind, a soul, in 15 ounces? Some people say we can’t. They’re wrong. They’re dead wrong, based on what I’ve seen.
Of course, I didn’t think so much about everyone else’s babies in those early days, I was so worried about my own. The next Neonatologist I spoke to about my girls was not nearly so nice as the first, or rather, much less so than he was prior to the birth. He stands there, barking at me, “We’re not going to feed Lily until you produce some milk.” WHAT? You’re not going to feed my 3lb 2 oz baby? My mouth drops open. I try not to burst into tears. Or punch him in the mouth. My hormones were raging and I want to do both. “We want her first food to be breast milk,” he explains. His voice sounds annoyed, exasperated. “Can’t you just get 2 ccs?”
Now I really want to punch him in the mouth. And also tell him to squeeze 2 ccs out of his own nipples; maybe he’d have more luck than I was having. It had been less than 48 hours since the C-section, and I had been told to pump every 3 hrs. I pumped every 2, but still my body hadn’t figured out it had given birth. My ankles were the size of tree trunks, swollen with fluid. My incision stung. I shook with exhaustion. I thought he was being a real A-hole. What exactly did he think I’d been doing the previous day and a half? Sitting around drinking milkshakes, admiring the flock of parrots in the tree outside my window? Okay, that’s exactly what I was doing when he came to my hospital room to answer my questions prior to the birth. Back when he was nice to me. But since the birth I’d pumped my damn heart out. Why wasn’t he giving me any credit?
The next day he sent a lactation consultant to my room with the stern words “Don’t leave until you’ve gotten some milk out of her.” She laughed. “Those men,” she whispered conspiratorially to me. “They think it’s like flipping a switch!” She was one of the nicest women I’ve ever met. She showed me what I was doing wrong, rubbed my back, and told me not to worry, the milk would come. And it did. The milk came and it did wonders for my babies. Healed them, comforted them, made them grow.
Then it was time to leave. Time to return to our island. I don’t think I realized until after I passed through the heavy double doors of the NICU for the last time, the lesson I’d been taught. Riding to the airport in our rental car, thinking about my beautiful, healthy baby girls, riding in their carseats behind me, a month before nearly all babies their age had even been born. I thought about all that had happened the previous 8 weeks. About my kind, worried OB, pacing the hallway, and the words that he said. I thought of that homeless woman. I wondered again how she managed to endure such pain in those long, long corridors. Then I knew how. She wasn’t thinking of herself at all; she was thinking of her baby. It wasn’t about her, just as… it wasn’t about me. If it were, my OB would never have paced those halls. I would never have been carried onto that plane, never sat in that hospital for 6 long weeks, never had my feelings hurt by a Neonatologist who was just doing his job. No, he wasn’t just doing his job; he was doing it bloody well.
Boarding that plane, flying back to my island, I realized 2 things: that it would never be about me again, and that it is an astonishing blessing to leave with your hands full. More than full.